Certain foods, though humble and unassuming, nevertheless become icons. Through circumstance, the foods take on meaning and importance that far exceed any gustatory enjoyment or nutritive value.
I first encountered frybread while on a gastronomic road trip through Arizona and New Mexico. Transiting the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest, I learned of Navajo frybread and its place in Southwest history. I encountered it again at the 42nd Annual Nanticoke Powwow in Millsboro, Del., more than 2,000 miles and chronologically a century distant.
Frybread is a flat dough bread, deep-fried in oil, shortening, or — more traditionally — lard. As it cooks, it puffs up, and can be adorned with a range of sweet or savory toppings. Served differently from region to region, individual tribes may also use differing recipes.
Frybread has its roots in the 1860s when the Federal Government forced Arizona Native Americans to make the 300-mile “Long Walk” journey to Bosque Redondo, N.M., and relocate onto land that could not support their traditional staples of vegetables and beans. To prevent starvation, the government distributed white flour, processed sugar, and lard — the makings of frybread.
With those simple ingredients, frybread was a way to “make do” and take advantage of the scanty rations and survive in a world that had suddenly and dramatically changed.
Plusses and minuses
Today, frybread is controversial, representing both perseverance and pain. For many Native Americans, frybread links generations and connects the present to a sometimes agonizing past. Some see frybread as a symbol of Native pride and unity. However, Native American chef Sean Sherman called it “everything that isn't Native American food.” Others point to its calorie and fat content contributing to high levels of diabetes and obesity on reservations. As one source stated: “…frybread has killed more Indians than the Federal Government.”
Regardless of the controversy, frybread was much in evidence at the annual Nanticoke Powwow, with several vendors offering frybreads and other foods. Dawn Manyfeathers, from the Lenape tribe, uses frybread recipes that combine the traditional Southwestern approach with ingredients more available to Eastern woodlands tribes. As a trained herbalist, forager and gourmet cook, Ms. Manyfeathers incorporates native plants into many of her dishes.
“You are tasting the culture,” she said. “I also use native foods and techniques in my regular cooking and have adapted modern cooking techniques such as salt stones and sous vide.”
For the Powwow, Ms. Manyfeathers prepared a traditional frybread, but added culinary sumac; and a pumpkin frybread with spiceberry. Along with the traditional disk-shaped breads, she also sold bags of bite-sized frybread pieces.
The nearby “food court” offered the “standard” frybread along with succotash, another traditional Native American dish. The puffy bread was an ideal vehicle for scooping up the sweet corn and tender lima beans in a rich sauce.
“This is a part of our tradition that we are passing on,” explained Natosha Carmine, chief of the Nanticoke tribe. “How natural it is to cook. Our foods bring our people together.”
Cultural pride and unity seemed the focus of many Native Americans at the Powwow. “These grounds are the footprints of our ancestors,” continued Chief Carmine. “We come in prayerfully, remembering our ancestors, our children with us so they can feel the beat of the drums.”
Along with other traditions, frybread has become iconic. Love it, hate it or ignore its checkered history and mixed reputation, it is a staple at powwows and tribal gatherings, and — perhaps sadly — one of the few foods that many Americans can identify as Native American.
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups warm water
oil, for frying
Mix flour, baking powder,and salt in a large bowl. Add warm water and stir until dough begins to ball up. Knead dough on a lightly floured surface; place in a bowl and refrigerate for 1/2 to 1 hour.
Heat oil to 350 degrees in a frying pan or kettle. Pinch off 2-inch balls of dough and flatten to 1/4-inch thickness on a lightly floured surface. Cut hole in middle so the dough fries flat and place in oil and cook until golden brown. Flip over and cook until same golden brown. Dough is done in about 3 minutes depending on thickness and oil temperature.